‘Man of the year’: Ex-Marine finds missing Florida boy, 2, safe in woods

BROOKSVILLE, Fla. — A former Marine in west-central Florida was celebrated as a hero on Friday after he discovered a 2-year-old boy who had gone missing the day before, authorities said.

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Roy Link, 62, of Brooksville, found Joshua “JJ” Rowland in some woods about 2 miles north of the toddler’s home in Brooksville, the Tampa Bay Times reported. According to the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office, the child left his home while one of his parents was asleep. He was missing for approximately 24 hours.

“Roy Link is the man of the year here in Hernando County,” Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis said in a Facebook video posted by the sheriff’s office.

“I said a prayer about 10 minutes before I found him,” Link told Nienhuis in the video.

Link, a former supervisor for the Hernando County Parks & Recreation Department, said he began searching on his own Friday morning and found the boy after an hour, the Times reported.

Link chose to search woods to the left of a clearing and heard the boy whimpering, the newspaper reported.

“Hey, buddy,” Link said, according to the Times. “You ready to get out of here?”

The boy threw up his arms in an affirmative gesture.

“It was a true miracle,” Nienhuis said on Facebook.

Several law enforcement agencies, including the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Florida Department of Corrections and local police, searched for Rowland in the area, located about 50 miles north of Tampa, the Times reported. Residents also formed search parties in an attempt to find the boy, who was covered in briars when Link found him.

More than 500 people searched, but Link was able to find Rowland and reunite him with his parents.

“That long period -- everybody starts thinking the worst, and it’s hard not to. It’s like, how can all these people and all these deputies search all this and not find a clue?” Link told the Times in a telephone interview. “You know all that bad stuff starts going through your mind, but then finding him healthy and alive, it’s just … wow.”

The boy, who had been last seen at about 10:40 a.m. EST on Thursday and was no worse for wear, other than spurs and a diaper that had not been changed for a day.

“The good news is he did not end up in any water, obviously, and he was not abducted,” Nienhuis said, according to The Associated Press. “He was found in the woods. He seems to be fine. He’s definitely going to have something to tell his kids and grandkids about.”

In a Facebook post on Friday, the sheriff’s office thanked the volunteers, law enforcement agencies and media outlets who helped in the search.

“All of us are overwhelmed by the support we received from our own citizens, as well as those from other counties and states,” the sheriff’s office wrote on Facebook. “Our prayers were answered at 10:42 this morning. Thank you all for being a part of this success story.”